By freelance correspondent Brietta Hague
Alphonse Coulibaly (centre) and Souleymane Sidibe (right) hope to be the first Ivorian surfers in the 2020 Olympics. (ABC News: Brietta Hague)
Hadi Beydoun never expected to become a surf entrepreneur.
Like most people growing up in the Ivory Coast, he’d never even caught a wave on its 590 kilometres of coastline.
But in 2011 he left his country during a brief period of civil war to study in Sydney. On a whim, he decided to go on a “surfing safari” in New South Wales.
“It turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had,” Mr Beydoun says.
“After that I fell totally in love with surfing.”
Hadi Beydoun and Paul Abbas hope to start a surfing revolution on the Ivory Coast. (ABC News: Brietta Hague)
A dream born in Bondi
Mr Beydoun bought a surfboard and started taking lessons at Maroubra and Bondi. Three years ago, after peace returned to Ivory Coast, the now-26-year-old decided to take his new passion home and share it.
“I have an attachment to Australia. I still want to be able to experience and live that culture far away from the country.”
The West African state, a former French colony known as Cote d’Ivoire, has an abundance of south-facing beaches enjoying a year-round swell. But it’s never really been a surfing destination.
“A lot of people here are still afraid of the ocean and don’t want to get out there as they’re not exposed to surf culture.
“There’s a lot of work we have to do to get people confident. This is a sport we need to bring to the continent.”
From war to waves
Since the civil war ended, Ivory Coast has been enjoying something of a renaissance. It’s become the largest economy in West Africa, mainly thanks to its cocoa production. One sector that’s been slow to recover is tourism. In 2016, an attack on the popular beach resort of Grand Bassam by an Al Qaeda Islamist sent visitor numbers tumbling.
Mr Beydoun, who hails from a family of Lebanese entrepreneurs, saw surfing as a way to kick-start tourism and revive coastal areas.
“Our final step is to give back to the community,” he says.
Surfers on Assinie, a former resort beach for French colonialists 80km from the commercial capital, Abidjan. (ABC News: Brietta Hague)
Locals jump onboard
He based himself at Assinie-Mafia, a former resort for French colonialists 80 kilometres from the commercial capital, Abidjan. It has some of the country’s best beaches. But with little surf culture, it was difficult to persuade others to try it.
“It’s not simple to get out into the ocean. If you live in Sydney it’s easier, you have more opportunity and it’s more accessible.”
The first problem was the lack of surfboards.
Some local kids were keen to learn but none could afford imported surfboards from South Africa. Some were trying to use bits of timber they found on the shore.
So Mr Beydoun decided to open the country’s first surfboard workshop with two fellow surf enthusiasts, Paul Abbas from Beirut and French expatriate Pierre Nicoud. The result is The West Factory in Abidjan.
Hadi Beydoun, Paul Abbas and a local worker craft boards in their Abidjan factory. (ABC News: Brietta Hague)
Mr Abbas shapes the boards and is training local young people in the craft:
“The first step is to make the model sustainable: teach them how to shape, organise events to encourage local surfers to compete. And we have a humanitarian project. Every locally made surf board we sell, a percentage goes to educational [groups] and [charity] foundations.”
Their fear that some locals would see them as profiteers was quickly overcome.
“If you want to make money don’t work in surfboard making,” Mr Abbas laughed. “Especially not in the Ivory Coast. We aren’t doing this to make money and rip people off. The main reason we’re doing this is to promote surf culture in this country.”
Paul Abbas and local student Erik in the country’s first surf workshop in Abidjan. (ABC News: Brietta Hague)
The boards are cheaper than imports and Mr Beydoun has started giving them to keen grommets (junior surfers) to improve their skills.
Slowly, a core group of determined surfers is emerging.
“We are seeing more young Ivorians surfing and some of them have a good level,” he says proudly.
Children watch surfers at Assinie, as more and more young Ivorians take up the sport. (ABC News: Brietta Hague)
Next step: World Cup
Souleymane Sidibe and Alphonse Coulibaly are among a dozen-strong Ivorian crew who surf the Assinie beaches every day, even if it means sharing a few boards between them.
“It’s the great feeling of freedom you can have, it helps you get stuff out of your system,” Alphonse Coulibaly says.
Their heroes are Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater and their dream is to compete internationally for the Republic of Cote d’Ivoire.
They’re not just prepping for the World Cup in Dakar in August, they hope to be the first Ivorian surfers in the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
“We want to raise the profile of Ivory Coast internationally. This is a country to dream about being a famous footballer but not a famous surfer,” Souleymane says.
“When we were kids we’d have to hide our surfing from our family. We’d go out into the surf and our parents would stand on the beach, angry, waiting for us.”
Surfing is still considered a dangerous sport by many Ivorians.
On the tourist map
West Africa has seen surfing booms before. The cult classic film Endless Summer from the 1960s extolled the beaches of Senegal and Ghana.
Now despite the political and social turmoil of recent decades, intrepid surf tourists are now starting to come to Assinie-Mafia.
November to April is the most popular time for surfing but the biggest swell hits the coast from April to September. In these early days of tourist infrastructure, it can take time and determination to explore the best surf spots.
“I think the government is aware there needs to be more tourist infrastructure,” Mr Beydoun says.
“They don’t have the right policies in place just yet. I have seen there are some investors in hospitality, hotels — investors are good but local knowledge and involving locals is important.”
While security concerns have eased, there is one dark cloud on the surf horizon that nobody cared about in the 1960s. Climate change has hit West Africa hard. Rising sea levels have damaged some of its most beautiful beaches.
A five-hour drive from Assinie-Mafia, there is another old colonial resort town called Lahou-Kpanda. Or at least it used to be. A series of extreme storms and sea surges since the 1980s have destroyed all but one of the old colonial buildings that lined the shore. Most of the population has been relocated 30 kilometres inland to a new town with the same name.
The ocean is swallowing one or two metres of land a year, according to Tagwa Eric Cavale, a marine and coastal scientist who heads the government’s national program for coastal environment management.
The government has committed to cut greenhouse emissions by 28 per cent under the Paris Climate agreement.
“It is true that we are not a big industrial country, but we must do our part to make this phenomenon diminish,” Mr Cavale says.
Mr Beydoun believes one of the best ways to protect the coast is to make the rest of the world aware of it. He wants to reveal what people have been missing out on before it’s lost.
Maroubra beach may be 15,685 kilometres from Assinie-Mafia, but the joy of surfing he discovered there might be one of the best things to happen to his coastal African home.